Yuja Wang – Sonatas & Etudes – 4.5/5
So the big confession here would be that I did indeed chuckle at how closely her name resembles ‘Huge Wang,’ but I didn’t have to listen to her for long to realise that she is anything but a bad joke, and I dare any reader to challenge that notion. It is performances like this that force you to re-consider an underutilised instrument for its versatility, and how in skilled hands that can truly come across. Expertly performing compositions from Chopin, Liget, Scriabin and Liszt – particularly the latter, often renowned for being notoriously difficult – this is a debut album that shows more than simple ‘promise for the future,’ but rather a curiosity of where she has left to explore.
Now, first let’s dispel a few likely common thoughts about just how versatile the instrument is (for some reason I hear in my head “well it’s just like a keyboard right?” cropping up), its acoustic nature allowing for a variety of volumes to emerge and shift throughout the piece, allowing for very natural crescendo’s and build-ups in tension. The pedal also allows for control over the vibrato, lending either a very stark and bombastic tone, or a very fluid legato progression (unlike the keyboards, which is entirely limited by its electronic nature), and this is all forgetting the sheer range the instrument is capable of. All of these facts this young pianist seems more than aware of, displaying almost as much ease in the quick legato of ‘Ligeti’ as the darker toned romantic portrayal of Chopin’s second sonata.
But her real triumph comes in the final half hour, seeing Liszt’s only piano sonata that is so rarely done justice given thorough practice and the result is only too evident. The slower bassier rhythm’s interweaving with the lighter, quicker melodies, the melodic focus transitioning fluidly from the high end to the low, performing whichever in question more prominently with the required hand in a manner that simply boggles the mind. Going chaotically from the doom-like, gothic tones to the jollier, upbeat passages like a schizophrenic on crack, complete with crescendo’s and crashes galore; the piece is performed as though designed for a mad chainsaw-wielding madman who’s all too happy about his day job, and the result is absolutely flawless.
The production, too, is impressive, allowing for crystal clarity of each note which can only serve to enhance the atmosphere of the piece. The manner in which the album flows as a whole does nothing to detract either, opening with the impressive Chopin work (my only criticism perhaps that the funeral march is lacking in the bassier tone, needing more of a real ground-shaking emphasis to get across the morbid theme) to the delicate and gentler, simpler virtuosity of Scriabin, on to her final stellar Liszt performance, utilising short pieces by Liget almost as a means to refresh the musical palette. This is simply put a more than impressive debut demonstrating some well known piano compositions at their best, and is more than deserving of your time.
Highlights: Grave – Doppio Movimento (Chopin), Lento Assai (Liszt), Allegro energico (Liszt)